It was last September that Singapore designer Prabal Gurung received perhaps the biggest seal of approval of his career. On the first day of her nine-day tour of south-east Asia and the Pacific, the Duchess of Cambridge broke with her usual pattern of dressing in British labels and wore a dress by the local designer instead. ‘This is the ultimate honour,’ Gurung said after seeing photos of Catherine, in his design, standing next to Singapore’s president. ‘I had been hoping that she would wear one of our dresses, but for it to happen while she’s visiting the part of the world I was born in … is an absolute dream come true.’
Gurung’s purple printed wool and silk-blend shift dress gave the Duchess a touch of the exotic. It also demonstrated Gurung’s accomplished technical hand. Raised in Nepal, Gurung frequently takes Asian motifs – in this case drawings of flowers inspired by a Japanese artist – and turns them into fashion-forward prints. His clothes balance the edgy and off-kilter with the elegant and refined and his expert tailoring flatters the female silhouette. It’s no wonder his fans include actress Sarah Jessica Parker, model Joan Smalls and First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.
Gurung, who launched his line only in 2009, is one of a growing number of designers who are quietly and assuredly putting Singapore on the fashion map. The wealthy city-state, perhaps best known for innovations in business and technology, can now lay claim to several first-class and emerging fashion talents. From an early age Singaporeans encounter a mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. That gives them a broad palette and plenty of inspiration. For his spring/summer 2013 collection, for instance, Gurung has paired fitted jackets with slouchy pants inspired by the traditional kurta, a loose shirt worn by men and women in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Re-making the classics
Priscilla Shunmugam, a Malaysian-born, Singapore-based designer, also uses local inspiration for her label Ong Shunmugam. Her clothes frequently pull traditional Asian garments into the 21st century by experimenting with shape and material. Guardianship, her second ready-to-wear collection, re-works the cheongsam, the hip-hugging one-piece dress also known as the qípáo or mandarin gown. Shunmugam updates the cuts from the 1950s and 1960s, and plays with patterns that reference botanical themes or geometry. The resulting outfits meld modern with vintage for an interesting mix of history and contemporary style.
Fabric of life
Texture plays a big part in Shunmugam’s designs, too. Her eight Guardianship dresses come in 24 different materials, ranging from lace and silk to organic crêpe and fine cotton. Other ranges, such as her more recent Prints Charming collection, utilise traditional Asian textiles such as Cambodian brocade, Malaysian songket and batik from the Indonesian port city of Cirebon.
Traditional prints, however, never constrain a forward-thinking designer. Shunmugam isn’t afraid to take menswear and transform it into something feminine. As she said ahead of Paris Fashion Week last autumn: ‘We’ve taken archetypal masculine pieces like the shirt, the trouser and even the bolero and reconfigured them so they retain a sense of a woman’s physique.’
Going Gaga for Isham
Ashley Isham, another Singapore-born designer, has built a reputation for draping and tailoring. He first came to the world’s attention after he relocated to Britain to study fashion at the esteemed Central St Martins College, and has gone to dress Lady Gaga, Lily Donaldson and a host of socialites. Isham doesn’t design exclusively for celebrities, however, but rather for the woman who can mix elegant with avant-garde. ‘She is not the girly sort,’ he has said. ‘She is more of a sophisticated femme fatale. That is why my designs are floaty, feminine, goddess like.’
A divine look certainly comes through in his spring/summer 2013 collection. From floral cocktail dresses to long and flowing gowns, his garments come to life as women move. A series of toga-like gowns – draped to perfection – come in eye-popping colours including mandarin orange and cherry red. The beaded details and floral patterns on other dresses instantly evoke the charm of his homeland. ‘The south-east Asian heritage is vibrant, exciting and broad,’ he recently said, ‘so it is always very inspiring whenever I am back in south-east Asia.’
After stopping by the Singapore boutiques that stock Prabal Gurung, Ong Shunmugam and Ashley Isham, you’ll certainly echo his sentiment.